Tories’ £9bn fuel duty splurge will leave UK in breach of environmental law, say campaigners

While it may feel like an easy win for the Tories, this £8bn fossil fuel giveaway will hit Phillip Hammond's coffers hard - and make the public cough harder.

Clean air activists and climate campaigners have said Theresa May is failing in her legal duty to tackle climate change, after the PM announced fuel duty will be frozen for the ninth year in a row.

The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank says the policy costs the Treasury around £9bn a year.

In contrast, investment in green energy slumped by 56% in the UK in 2017 – the biggest fall of any country – after the government cut support.

Levels of air pollution are in breach of EU law across most of the UK, with the cut in fuel duty contributing to the problem, according to campaigners. A National Audit Office report last year found that 85% of UK “air quality zones” exceed legal pollution limits – eight years after they were supposed to meet them.

The UK is also at risk of breaching its legally-binding emissions targets, according to the Committee on Climate Change.

Commenting on the PM’s announcement, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said:

“Dirty air is killing thousands of people every year – and the government is breaking the law with its negligent failure to cut pollution. The last thing we need is another subsidy to encourage more cars onto our roads.

“Instead of paying for petrol, she should be investing that money into modernising our creaking public transport network and making our streets safe for walking, cycling and breathing.”

Rachel Kennerley, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said it is public transport – not cars – that should be the focus of subsidies: 

“How about freezing rails fares for cash-strapped passengers? In a few days scientists will tell us what little chance we have left to contain run-away climate change, and continuing to subsidise dirty fuel seems to be the government showing that they are not taking this threat seriously enough.”

Max Wakefield, lead campaigner at 10:10 Climate Action said her speech was a missed opportunity for rebranding the Tories:

“It’s telling that while renewables lay starved of financial support the government are bunging billions to fossil fuels through their fuel duty freeze. This is billions of pounds which could be using phase out petrol cars, invest in clean public transport or support our renewable sector.

“The Prime Minister should have used today’s speech to make real the Conservative’s green re-brand by reversing the subsidy cuts and planning blocks to solar power and onshore wind. Instead we’re left with the familiar feeling that this government is just not serious when it comes to tackling climate change.”

Others criticised the effect of the fuel duty freeze on people’s health.

Morten Thaysen, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace, said:

“This fuel duty freeze shows May is still failing to take her obligation to bring air pollution to within legal limits seriously. Our toxic air is causing enormous harm to people’s health in towns and cities across the UK, and solving this public health crisis should be top of her agenda [by]…ensuring cheap and reliable public transport for all.”

A spokesperson for Global Justice Now told LFF: 

“Two months after scientists warned that we’re on track for a ‘hothouse earth’, climate change was almost as conspicuous by its absence from the conference hall as Boris Johnson. The fuel duty freeze just shows how little the environment features on the government’s agenda.

“There was nothing here to suggest that the best days are ahead for people on the front line of climate breakdown in Britain and around the world.”

While it may feel like an easy win for the Tories, this £8bn fossil fuel giveaway will hit Phillip Hammond’s coffers hard – and make the public cough harder. 

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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